Deconstructing a historical construct

By Ed Finkel

To shed assumptions and make everyone feel welcome, colleges need to get granular

Community colleges making the diversity, equity and inclusion journey must recognize that one-size-fits-all support for “studentsof color” doesn’t get the job done.

The higher education sector has historically excluded people, ranging from Black to Native American to LGBTQIA+—and community colleges, as open access institutions, have a responsibility to deconstruct these barriers, Hennepin Technical College (HTC) President Merrill Irving says.

“That starts with [students] walking in the door, being who they are; and that means us understanding who they are and how we can advance them,” he says. “We need to recognize exactly who’s in front of us.”

Getting granular

HTC, where the student body is 49.6% ethnically diverse—including 20.4% Black, 10.4% Asian, 8.4% Hispanic and 8.1% two or more races—undertook research to pinpoint the academic achievement gaps between white students and others. The data also showed that Black men over age 26 faced the toughest challenges in completing school, financially and otherwise.

“If we had kept grouping people together, kept going with ‘people of color,’ we never would have known that, or addressed what is affecting persistence in a specific population,” says Irving, who is Black. “That’s why it’s so critical that our college, and our leadership, and our faculty and staff are culturally competent.”

Irving says he’s been calling out white people who say, “I don’t see color,” in an attempt to educate them on why that mentality falls short. “What that says is, you don’t understand what challenges and what discrimination that someone has overcome as a Black individual, or as an Asian-Pacific Islander. It means you don’t understand my pathway to get to this space. We didn’t get to this space the same way. That mindset affects us in higher education.”

Breaking down broader ethnic categories into component parts helps colleges understand why ESL students have different language scores from African-Americans who are the descendants of slaves, or why African immigrants or refugees struggle with

language but might have high scores on mathematics, Irving says. To keep drilling down for the purposes of measuring student progress, HTC has created a disaggregated report that looks at which populations need what he calls “intrusive engagements.”

“Unless we separate out these populations, if we are looking at them as being Black—and not native to the U.S., or an immigrant—how are we culturally aware of their [potential in] our classes and programs?” he asks. “You also have to look at things from a religious perspective. When I first got to the college, they were holding graduation at a church, and we have a large Muslim population. You can imagine that many of our students did not feel comfortable coming to graduation. I had to campaign to change it that year.”

HTC has worked to infuse these concepts into everything from its curriculum to training for campus law enforcement officers, Irving says.

“People are afraid to recognize that we have differences, and that we can celebrate and learn from those,” he says. “We have equity and inclusion as learning outcomes. I’m so grateful that our faculty have endorsed them. They’re strategically aligned in our academic program so that our students become global citizens.”

The college has changed job descriptions and instituted minimum qualifications when it comes to cultural competency and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, Irving says, and one of its eight annual professional development days is devoted completely to DEI training. HTC has implemented tools designed to measure cultural competency and undertaken antiracism training with leadership, faculty and staff.

The cultural competence that comes with such training will not only help to tamp down police brutality but lead to a broader recognition of the power of whiteness in American society, Irving says. “Every major decision in the United States is made by a person in a dominant position who happens to be white,” he says. “There’s not one major decision on Wall Street, in the Oval Office, regarding the Oscars, that does not have a white voice involved, or leading it. People need to understand that the same thing plays out at our colleges.”

As a college president who is Black, Irving readily acknowledges he certainly has influence in policies related to DEI but does not necessarily see himself as the dominant voice. “Even as the president, I have to figure out, how can I be influential, still existing in a construct that is not dominated by people who look like me,” he says. “You have to remove yourself from people thinking you’re making it about you, rather than making it about this work. It’s a very difficult place to be when you’re a Black president.”

This is a preview of feature article in the upcoming Community College Journal, hitting mailboxes soon.

Ed Finkel

is an education writer based in Illinois.